Being on a contemplative path can be a very lonely journey. The emphasis often given to silence and self study naturally constitutes a certain degree of physical and psychological aloneness for the practitioner. Traditionally, in the teachings of the Buddha, practitioners develop a relationship with solitariness by retreating in nature. The practice of separating from the temptations of the social world is a common initiation and expression of sincerity and commitment to practice. Being distanced from social distractions is how a practitioner starts to establish a firm sense of confidence being alone with one’s mind. We see this expressed in several Buddhist texts:
“Herein, monks, a monk, having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree or to an empty place, sits down with his legs crossed, keeps his body erect and his mindfulness alert”
“These rocky heights delight me.
Without crowds of people,
But visited by herds of deer,
And filled with flocks of birds,
These rocky heights delight me.”
I am one who strongly believes that both silence and solitude play fundamentally important roles in personal practice. They help create an environment of undisrupted and direct contact with the mind in ways that are unique to solitary practice. However, I also know from personal experience that too much emphasis given to social-isolation can produce more suffering for many practitioners. Neglecting intimate social relationships and relinquishing contact with people you care about can not only lead to feelings of loneliness and displacement, but also stunt the spiritual growth you seek.
I want to have a sincere spiritual practice without having to neglect my social-self.
For many years, I have directed a lot of energy towards cultivating a sustainable meditation practice routine devoted to regular periods of solitude and silence. I can attest that this daily regime has been central to my overall spiritual growth and contentment in life. But even today, within that disciplined routine, I encounter periods of loneliness and sadness. I never mention it to my peers and friends, but it’s true. I often long for more social intimacy in my life; I want to feel a greater sense of belonging with other people. I wouldn’t describe this loneliness as a yearning for more friends necessarily; it’s more like a void in my heart that comes from not being able to actively practice giving of myself in mutual relationships. I want to have a sincere spiritual practice without having to neglect my social-self. My solitary practice is deeply nourishing, but my desire for social intimacy is screaming from within and always lingering in the background. I have tried to silence the intensity of the scream with more meditation techniques, only to realize that the loneliness is wanting to be held rather than cured.
I remember hearing Toni Morrison say in an interview that the tension found in America’s dangerous ideas of individualism and self-sufficiency leave us with the question of “how to be an individual in yourself, and how to adore privacy, and at the same time belong to something larger than you. And that tension is always going to be there.” I personally feel that tension as a practitioner. It’s an old tension. I’ve lost personal friendships because I did not have the capacity to reconcile to the tension. I know that I have to find a way of extending compassion to my loneliness, maintain a sustainable personal practice, and honor my need for social intimacy.
Many contemplatives, some Buddhist and non-Buddhist, say that being alone and withdrawing from social intimacy is the highest path of a true practitioner. I actually don’t have any resistance to that perspective because I know this is true for some people. However, I can clearly see how my attempt to force that monastic approach to practice has led me down a path of confusion over the years. It has taken me some time to see how this partiality towards seclusion without a healthy social structure has contributed to loneliness in my life and also in the lives of many of my peers who practice meditation.
One of my concerns is the silence around loneliness in our modern meditation communities today. Many practitioners, including myself, have felt alienated from contemporary practice communities because of the absence of teachings around relevant topics such as social intimacy, pleasure, and loneliness. We have struggled to find places of refuge because many modern practice communities attempt to adhere to traditional monastic principles that denounce social fluidity and intimacy, although we are living in an entirely different cultural context from the original monastic traditions of the lineage. We’ve heard many talks given by teachers that passively devalue pleasure and intimacy, all under the guise of the Buddha’s teachings of non-attachment, renunciation, and egolessness.
Does meditation require a renunciation of social intimacy?
I’ve witnessed teachers and practitioners avoid having the tough conversations around the complexity of social relationships, pleasure, loneliness, and any other social orientation of practice outside of the normative ideas of what it means to be a meditation practitioner. I’ve heard statements such as “all is mind” and scriptural references like “Monks, be islands unto yourselves, be your own refuge, having no other…” repeated to bypass the communal responsibility of taking the risk to explore modern orientations of social intimacy as practice. These deflections discourage people from being honest about their experiences of loneliness and their need for social intimacy on the path. My greatest concern is that the singular overrepresentation of practice as being solely individual and withdrawn, may indirectly send the message that loneliness and the wanting of more social intimacy are personal flaws that need to be worked out in meditation.
This concern of mine has left me reflecting on these questions as doorways into finding a solution for this problem: Does meditation require a renunciation of social intimacy? Can social intimacy be seen as a place of possibility for contemplatives to practice awareness and joy? Is there an embodied practice that is explicitly social for people who have encountered loneliness on their path?
In Jazz music, one way of describing practice is through the term “shedding” formally referred to as “woodshedding.” Technically, shedding can happen with other people, but it usually points to solitary practice where a musician is working on something in a repetitive manner. When I was in the Music Department at Howard University, there were small practice rooms with just enough space for a piano and chair. When someone had been practicing for a long time you’d hear folks say, “so and so has been shedding all day!” From an outsider’s perspective, it can appear that the shedding is a completely solitary occupied space, but the truth is, they are thinking about, hearing, and even feeling the other ensemble members — even though they aren’t physically there. When everyone comes together, they bring their unfinished ideas and the new discoveries that came forth through what they’d been “shedding on.” Somehow from this withdrawing and gathering, new worlds open up for the musicians. The vibrational frequencies of the collective field gives birth to music that is beyond any of the individual’s creative imaginations. Each musician is offering something unique of themselves to the overall field and from this offer everyone is simultaneously fed by the subtle energies of the gathering. It’s no script, just gathering and being with others.
Silence and solitude will forever remain as cornerstones to my practice, but they will no longer drown out my capacity to listen to and honor my need for more social intimacy.
I see this musical reference as a framework to begin exploring how “gathering as practice” could provide the space and balance that I need and have been missing in my life as a contemplative practitioner. A centering of social practice for contemplative practitioners, like myself, who find individual practice deeply meaningful but also need more relational intimacy. If “gathering as practice” could become an actual element of my contemplative life, this would mean that practice would always emphasize a balanced movement of gathering with other people, and dispersing to shed in my personal space, knowing that the relational field cultivated in the previous gathering will pull us back together soon. It would be a practice where the personal and the social are always in conversation, and the individuals within the fields intentionally create space for continuous interplay, even in the busyness of their lives. I see this as a practice of reciprocity, similar to the Platform Sutras statement “one’s daily actions must always practice the dissemination of benefit [for others].” Gathering as practice and individual practice begins to become an offering, a continuous circular motion of a radical relationality.
I wonder what it would be like for a whole bunch of lonely contemplatives to practice in this manner. It wouldn’t need to be perfect, we would just need commitment to fully inhabit our ordinary social encounters of everyday life as profound places of possibility and potential.
There are so many ways to practice. Some people prefer more classical solitary approaches to practice and some need a more social approach. From time to time, depending on the season, life can usher us closer to a certain orientation on the spectrum of practice. Most importantly, exercising agency and not being too attached to external standards of what’s permissible and what’s not is vital to maintaining a sustainable and fresh practice.
At this point in my journey, I am giving myself full permission to break away from the normative representations of contemplative practice that have been informed by Buddhist monastic ideologies. Silence and solitude will forever remain as cornerstones to my practice, but they will no longer drown out my capacity to listen to and honor my need for more social intimacy. I am no longer giving myself to the conceptual and hierarchical distinctions made between individual and social practice that have influenced how I approach practice. With the fresh orientation, I now see my experience of loneliness as an intuitive expression urging me to take the risk and reimagine myself as a social being and of a social world. I love how Ashon Crawley poses the question in his breathtaking book, The Lonely Letters: “Can one consider loneliness to not just be, or to not primarily be, an experience of the individual but of a social world?”
I think so.